Interior Design

The rule of thirds – 8 ways the experts use this interior design guide to brilliant effect

How to apply the rule of thirds, according to the those in the know...

rule of thirds
(Image credit: Future / Paul Raeside)

When it comes to redesigning a room, there are a number of design practices that can help you create a well-balanced space that is visually pleasing. The rule of thirds is one such rule that can help guide your design narrative.

See: Interior design tips – decorating secrets for the world's top experts

So what exactly is it? Interior designer Mindy Kelson O'Connor explains: 'The rule of thirds, which divides a space or view into a grid of three rows and three columns, can be an effective tool in creating or checking for balance in design. 

'Use grid lines as a means to establish or edit your proportions and define the arrangement of a spatial composition, especially when thinking about views - looking inside and out.'

Mindy explains that placing objects at the intersecting points of the grid can create a perfectly balanced outcome. She says: 'Consider where the vertical and horizontal grid lines intersect as focal points for views and positioning elements of interest. 

'In interior rooms the workplace countertop often runs along the first third horizontally like a horizon, and elements that intersect with it can vertically define the space. Window lines may stop along the upper third horizontally setting the parameters for views to the exterior and emphasizing the space of the ceiling above.'

Read on to see how designers use the rule to fabulous effect.

1. In the frame

rule of thirds

(Image credit: Wendy Concannon)

Use your windows and built-in cabinetry to create perfectly positioned framework for the room. Mindy says: 'Here, a grid in thirds frames the central window and creates balance within the built-in cabinetry piece and under the two halves of the symmetrically gabled ceiling.'

2. Use your kitchen island

rule of thirds

(Image credit: Wendy Concannon)

'A grid of thirds creates aisles for workflow around the room and around the central kitchen island which occupies the middle third,' explains Mindy. 'The countertop sets the work plane horizon and the hanging lighting fixtures define a line of upper horizontal space acting as a focal point for the eye, in addition to lighting the room and adding visual punch.'

3. Bring it to the backsplash

rule of thirds

(Image credit: Wendy Concannon)

'Look to the finish materials like backsplash tile to visually organize the wall, create interest along the upper grid line and elongate the feeling of space in a smaller room,' says Mindy. 'It can be very stylish too, offering an opportunity to introduce more than one color onto the surfaces. Introduce an additional pop of color with hanging fixtures. Notice how the light fixture hanging down at the intersecting grid lines really draws the eye into the photo.'

See: Kitchen ideas – decor and decorating ideas for all kitchens 

4. Say it with statement lighting

Top designer Jean Stoffer employed the rule of thirds in her own kitchen. Notice how the counter top creates a horizontal line at the first third, and the cool pendant lights are positioned at the intersecting line points for visual interest and perfect balance.

5. Opt for open shelving

The use of open shelving in the kitchen is not only on-trend, but also an easy way to apply the rule of thirds. In this example from Jean Stoffer, the shelf delineates the top horizontal, and the two stylish wall lights sit at the grid's top intersections, creating that ideal balance.

6. Perfectly placed artwork

Designer Sarah Sherman Samuel shows how to utilise your artwork for the perfect placement; each end of the piece sits just outside the vertical intersection lines on the hypothetical rule of thirds grid. 

7. Work it with wall lights

We're in love with this pretty home office by Marie Flanigan, which has used botanical wallpaper and colour to create a cosy and chic space. But, what's also noticeable, is the rule of thirds being utilised to perfection. Notice how the desk creates the lower horizontal line, while the lights are perfectly placed at the intersections between the upper horizontal line and the two vertical lines. So visually pleasing to the eye.

8. Take it to the table

Marie Flanigan also shows us the importance of considering the height of your bedside and side table accessories, in this case the table lamp. In the picture above, you can see how the rug forms the edge of the lower horizontal rule of thirds grid line, while the height of the lamp is so spot-on it's perfectly positioned on the upper horizontal line. Its placement on the table also puts it firmly on the right hand vertical line, too. 

Below, you can see how Marie has used the rule of thirds in this beautiful nursery, where the top of the side table lamps sit on the upper vertical line. In this case, they sit just outside the vertical lines in the two outer middle sections of the grid, but this shows you that you can use the grid as guide and it's not always a hard and fast rule; symmetry has been utilised in this space, too.

Ruth Doherty

Ruth Doherty is an interiors writer who has worked for Homes & Gardens and Ideal Home magazines among many others.